ANTON ARENSKY – String Quartet No. 2

Russian Romantic composer Anton Arensky [1861-1906] wrote two string quartets. The first is quite positive and has much to recommend it, but I intend to discuss No. 2. It’s a little more contemplative, which is how I like it.

The second quartet is a four-movement work, with two long and two short movements.

The work opens in a Russian-sounding very slow folk-like mood. A sustained backing gives rise to a hint of a melody. After a time the ensemble breaks out and a graceful melody emerges from that hint. The melody is developed and leads the ensemble into a tempo. There is conversation going on here. A recapitulation ensues, with the melody further developed into a full blown passage. The music moves into a static mood for a while, before leading into a quiet but busy section. Now it is racing, with the violins chasing one another. The tempo drops and the passage breaks into a more dynamic mood. After a brief quiet section, the tempo returns with some fascinating melodic flourishes. We are still in folk-like territory and the tempo is moderate. The violins reignite the ensemble, before settling again. A lonely melody prevails until another tempo increase. This is a stirring passage. As we near the end the intensity drops back to the opening texture, very gentle here. The melody is a little funereal and quietly fades out.

At just under three minutes, the second movement is very short. It opens with a stately violin melody backed with pizzicato strings. This is very simple, but engaging. The violins overlap the melodic motif and it slowly becomes a miniature piece all of its own.

The next movement opens at a quick tempo and the violins converse over the backing for a short jaunting passage. The mood now changes with a familiar melody over a measured accompaniment. The music deepens. Another mood change sees the tempo increase into an almost playful passage. That familiarity returns but it comes to an abrupt halt. The two violins pick up the piece again and carry it along nicely; the viola and cello enter now. This is a very lyrical section. Suddenly there is movement. A new melody appears over a rhythmic section but this eventually pauses and the feeling is again folk-like with a dominant violin. This is very endearing and in a way, it is a highlight of the work; just this charming little section. Such a beautiful melody. The next passage is also extremely alluring. As it moves toward the end it is very sparse and reminiscent of the first movement. What a delightful finish!

The final, short movement sounds almost like Beethoven for a time. It suggests a dirge-like feeling. The violin melodies here are very attractive. Suddenly we are into a dance mode and the violins skip over the ensemble. The funereal feeling returns, with the cello being prominent. Then we are off to the dance again. This is a very energising passage which ends with a flourish.

The two quartets are available paired on several discs on Amazon. One CD, by the Lajtha Quartet on the Marco Polo label, also contains a fine Piano Quintet by the composer. There are many versions where No. 2 is coupled with another composer.

The works are available on Spotify and a multitude of versions are on earsense while several performances can be found on YouTube.

Listenability: Not as introverted as I first thought. Well worth a listen.


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